33 1/3 is the revolutions a typical record takes per minute atop a record player. It is also the name of a popular music book series that focuses on popular, controversial, and historically fascinating albums throughout music’s modern existence.
Each volume in the series focuses on one album, and each one is written by a different author (for the most part). The first volume in the series is written by Warren Zanes and is about Dusty Springfield’s classic 1969 album Dusty in Memphis. Released last month was a volume on The Talking Heads “Fear of Music,” written by Jonathan Lethem. It is the 86th volume in the series.
Some writers are veterans in the music industry and music journalism, and some are just huge fans with a knack for writing. 33 1/3 is run by just a small group of guys who work closely with a publishing house. They take submissions every few months for new volumes in the series. They then sift through the manuscripts, choose which ones to make to print, and pay the author handsomely. This is relatively simplified but it is basically a rudimentary system that allows music fans and writers to expose their favorite albums to the music going public.
But these books, more often than not, explore music deeply. This isn’t some blind fan praising an album universally saying how cool it is for 130 pages. These are deep analyses of a record. The history of it’s making, the mindset of the makers themselves, and the song structures and lyrics that go behind the album. These books are set for those who truly want to analytically explore their favorite albums, songs, and artists, beyond the “yeah their cool” mentality. They are fascinating explorations of a very specific topic, and not everyone can do this effectively.
The 33 1/3 book series is a prime example of music journalism merging in the context of the modern critic. Anyone can be a critic. Anyone can review a movie or piece of art or song for what values they find appealing and what they find not so much. This is a great fallacy of music critics. Sure, you can get paid to do it and have well-written opinions, but the grim reality is that anyone can do critique something, in this case music, and anyone can have an opinion that, for all intents and purposes, is just as right as yours. Even if you think it’s not.
An opinion is based on how well you can defend it, and how much support it has. Murder is pretty much a bad thing, but that is essentially an opinion. If someone was able to defend that murder is good, and can use practical and logical opinions to say it, that would be a good opinion and by extension, that makes them a good critic. This is an extreme example, but an example none the less. In the context of art, you can poop on a canvas and if you offer objective values and can defend your opinion well, you, in fact, are a good critic.
As far as music goes, the 33 1/3 books allow the critic to shine. Yes, not all those books are purely critical in their analyses. Many of them offer opinions on albums, but they stuff and defend it with objective historical facts and instrumental information. This takes research, and it takes a deep understanding. The 33 1/3 books are built for music critics, and help to establish a gap between a kid who posts on a YouTube video and a music critic who researches and explores their musical opinion.
It allows a music critic to stand above the masses in their ability to compose an opinion and write about it, and allows their expertise on a very specific subject to shine. As far as I can tell, the guy who writes a whole book about the musical attributes and juxtapositions inherent in My Bloody Valentines “Loveless” album is the ultimate guy with the ultimate opinion- he is an objectively high quality critic.
These books exist in a void all their own. In a void where people who adore something so specific musically, and who respect a critic, can enjoy it with wonder. I hope these books live long and prosper, for their inherent activity is showing that music is splendid and analytical, and that deeply studying it is paramount to getting all the layers. Someone has done that for you- all you have to do is read and respect.
Image Source, 33 1/3 Volumes 1-15 Side Panelling 2005